When Good People Write Bad Books

by zunguzungu

Doing work in any capacity about “Africa,” I always try to remind myself, means that I will, inevitably, be wrong about a lot of things. That’s a fact in most fields, of course, but it’s particularly a problem in this one, a field where the most brilliant people still manage to say the most mind-blowingly stupid and ignorant things. When a New York Times columnist is talking about Africa, there’s an easy way to tell whether or not he or she is being reductive, close-minded, reliant on clichés, and crypto-racist: his or her mouth is moving. This rule can be extended out into the general population, with the caveat that sometimes people manage to be ignorant by using a word processor as well. I include myself in this generalization.

Why this is so is a larger question, and not the one I want to address just now. Myself, I just try to be on the “mostly wrong, but partly right” side of the equation, which is, I think, still a useful thing to do. Most people are so wrong about Africa so much of the time, that by just shooting off partial inaccuracies, I see myself as watering down the cesspool of racist garbage that’s out there, like pouring saltwater into a sewer. It’s still not drinkable, but it doesn’t stink as much. But sometimes people go beyond the bounds of what is excusable, even though (like a garbage-man smoking a cigar) I feel that I’ve developed ways of being pretty tolerant and willing to make excuses for people’s ignorance. I run out of excuses when (a) someone has spent a significant time studying whatever corner of Africa they are trying to talk about, (b) when that person has actually gone there, and (c) when someone decides that the time has come for them to start passing judgments. That’s when they’re just beyond hope.

A fairly new book which I will avoid naming passes all three tests, and I want to use the occasion to talk about some of the reasons why it manages, even so, to be so incredibly craptastic. Some of you may know what book I am referring to, and it wouldn’t be that hard to figure it out if you’re interested; email me if you want to know.

So here’s what the book is about: an American academic (An African-American woman teaching African-American literature, if that’s relevant) goes to a west African nation in order to look for the present day traces of the slave trade. It is both a personal journey and an academic research trip, and she is well funded to do so. This, by the way, is typical of how African-American academics are supposed to do work on Af-Am history, and an example of how people of color more generally are expected to choose their academic sub-discipline according to the dictates of identity politics. When an Asian-American student studies Shakespeare, for example, she will discover, repeatedly, that people will presume she is also doing Asian-American literature and she will be expected to teach survey courses in that subject.

I’m not going to make the petty point that a white academic couldn’t receive funding to study his or her ancestral origins (while an African-American academic is practically expected to do so): since the bulk of the literary canon is white writers in the “western” tradition, the only people that might suffer from that are white people like me, people that study some kind of “ethnic” literature, and believe me, I have not suffered (the reverse is true, in fact). White people (because “white” is not considered a race, but the absence of race) are expected to be objective, while academics of color are expected to use their subjectivity in their work. The point I want to make, instead, is that the book goes so wrong precisely because it loses sight of any pretense of objectivity, because while it tries to make its subjectivity into a virtue, it really just makes its lack of objectivity into an excuse to be ignorant.

One one level, the author has done her homework and you can‘t fault her on that score; the book is incredibly well researched and filled with historical trivia that both sparkle and horrify. But because her goal is so similar to Alex Haley’s Roots, she manages to tell a similarly American-centric story about African history, and in doing so manages to reduce everything that happens there to a primeval past that stopped at exactly the moment the slave ancestor was put on a boat and sent to the new world, just as he did. By taking on history from the perspective of an African-American, she looks at the continent where some of her ancestors came from as a giant cipher for the great historical wrong that was done to them, and everything else fades into the background. Everywhere she looks, she sees slavery; it wouldn’t be hard to derive from her descriptions the idea that Africa is just one giant slave castle.

As someone with an interest in “Africa” as a whole mess of places that are not simply reducible to the place that slaves came from, I find this difficult to stomach. But I’m in the minority here, I suspect. As a reviewer put it: “the book tries to shake up our abstract, and therefore forgettable, appreciation for a tragedy wrought on countless nameless, faceless Africans. She makes us feel the horror of the African slave trade, by playing with our sense of scale, by measuring the immense destruction and displacement through its impact on vivid, imperfect, flesh-and-blood individuals — [the author] herself, the members of her immediate family she pushes away but mulls over, the Ghanaians she meets while doing her field work and the slaves whose lives she imaginatively reconstructs.”

I have nothing against “feeling” the horror of slavery and the slave trade, of course (in fact, it’s deeply disturbing how often people act like slavery was regrettable but somehow forgivable; there’s a real strain neo-plantation fantasy that exists in the US, and that’s beyond depressing). But gloss that paragraph again: our writer makes us “feel the horror of the African slave trade” by measuring “its impact on…the [Africans] she meets while doing her fieldwork.” Here’s the thing: those people she meets have been impacted by a lot of horrors, but slavery is not one of them. Life in that country for poor people (and that’s a lot of them) is not particularly great. The slave trade is, of course, part of that country’s history and part of why this is so, but it’s only part, and an absolutely staggering amount of what goes on all around our noble researcher goes by her dutifully unrecorded; she doesn’t just miss the forest for the trees, she misses most of the trees too. Another part of that country’s history is things like colonial subjugation, IMF sanctions, World Bank restructuring of the economy, WTO trade restrictions, and so forth. Today, that African state (like most African states) spends almost nothing on social services and frifferies like education, hospitals, and infrastructure (and “the [Africans] she meets” are the one’s who pay the price for that), and the reason they don’t is that they are told to do so by the Americans that run the World Bank and the IMF, because such economists believe is more important to service the massive debts those country’s incurred years ago, and because those agencies have the power to make them do so. The fact that those debts were run up by non-elected despots, people who often retire to enjoy their swiss bank accounts in Belgium, Paris, London, and the USA while the people of the country pay the bill, is not taken into account. The fact that those despots were often put into place and supported by American political interests (fighting communism, etc) is not taken into account. We continue to recognize and support despotic rule by African presidents whose crocodile tears over debt servicing (as they drive their Mercedes to the airport to vacation in Marseilles; the blame is not monopolized by anyone) would be dark comedy were it not so fucking depressing, and these are people who would never be in power were it not for actions taken by the United States government in your, my, and the author’s lifetime.

So, where does that leave us? I may have gone on a tangent, and you may, with some justification, say to me that I’m angry at her for not writing a book about the things I think are important, that she wrote her book and I should critique what its trying to do on its own terms. Fair enough. But why does she make the decision to write that kind of book? What goes into the act of authorship that transforms Africa into the background for a story about her family history? Africa into the backdrop on which we talk about historic wrongs that occurred in the Western hemisphere? It’s a very selective story, I’m saying. But if she did only this, if she only remained blind to her own country’s intimate involvement in the immiseration of incredible masses of people in Africa, this disinclination to face up to the blood on her hands would be only garden variety hypocrisy. But it doesn’t stop there. She also blames the immiseration of incredible masses of people in America on Africa.

Now, it is true that centuries ago, the people who became slaves in the Americas were sold to white slave traders by people whose ancestors live in Africa now. And if you want to pass historical judgment, and she does, then it seems like seeking to understand how and why this occurred would be the thing to do. But that’s not how she goes about it. Very intelligent people have addressed this question, and the scholarly literature is rich, deep, and complex. She adds nothing to this work, and does not address it — there are, in fact, some very disingenuous footnotes where she cites writers to indicate she’s read them, then contradicts their findings without even trying to explain why, instead (I presume) relying on your ignorance of that literature to lead you to assume that she’s simply following in the path of established scholarship. It’s like citing Darwin to argue for creationism.

Instead, this is a book which strives for subjectivity, and ends up sounding petulant and petty. Our faithful researcher runs into the problem that many African-Americans have in Africa: whereas the United States still operates faithfully by the “one drop rule” of race, and someone like our mixed race writer identifies one hundred percent with her African ancestors, most present day Africans do not see her as particularly “African.” Instead, they see her as a wealthy tourist, an American whose money gives her profound privileges, and (judging by her skin tone) as a white person.

To her credit, the author recognizes that they are not wrong in doing so. She spends a certain amount of time establishing that she is both privileged and feels guilty about it, though this somehow fails to endear her to her neighbors. But she goes on to learn nothing from this, goes on to vomit out resentment and rage at the fact that she is perceived as an outsider, despite the fact that she’s faithfully read the right kinds of third-world theorists, despite the fact that she’s read all the history books, despite the fact that she’s seen as a noble crusader for justice in the united states. What the fuck is wrong with these people? Why don’t they love me? Implicitly, Africans rejecting her as outsider becomes a replication of the historic crime by which her ancestors were sold into slavery by their ancestors; the incredible class distinction between her and them, and the kind of hostility she feels from them, becomes transmuted into a historic crime of unimaginable proportions; and her being snubbed on the street becomes the moral equivalent of being sold into slavery. And re-read the title with this in mind.

I might be being too harsh. Perhaps I shouldn’t judge her. But here’s the thing: I’ve heard that song before. She didn’t write that melody, and although some of the lyrics are her own addition, resentful expatriates have been singing that tune for years and years now in all kinds of places where the locals don’t have the social grace to starve quietly in the shadow of their opulence. I have little patience for the wazungu who live in luxury behind high walls with guard dogs and armed houseboys and who then complain about how difficult it is to live in Africa and who only know the Swahili for “Beware of Dog” (Mbwa Mkali). Like her, they have ignorance to plead, and it is at least possible to sympathize with the warpedness of people’s minds who live in such warped conditions. It is a genuinely weird experience to be white and rich in Africa, and I recall pouring my soul self-indulgently out on this very blog to that effect. Living as an expat in a place like Africa is a warping experience, so its not surprising that those people get a little weird and hateful. And how much weirder must it be to be “black” in America, and then travel to a mythologized homeland only to be treated as “white and rich in Africa”? She wants to emphathize with her ancestors, with the unbelievable holocaust of human destruction that the slave trade was, so who can blame her for getting a bit angry when no one seems to take her seriously? Who can blame her for getting a little angry when “my appearance confirmed it: I was the proverbial outsider. Who else sported vinyl in the tropics?” Who can’t sympathize with her misguided good intentions?

As I tell my students, however, having a reason for turning in a late paper is not the same thing as having an *excuse.* So, I want to ask what purpose this kind of history telling serves. As I’ve said, there’s a lot of history she’s not telling here. For example, she throws out the image of white slave traders showing up on the coast of Africa with nets and spears and guns in the manner of Haley’s “Roots,” despite the fact that that no serious historian thinks the slave trade happened this way. Slave traders bought slaves peacefully, largely from warlords and rich men who had taken captives in war or purchased them themselves (and I’ll address that in a minute), but she prefers to tell a story of hapless Africans attacked by all powerful westerners, a story in which we sympathize with the loser but don’t care to understand why they lost. This is important. The fact that we don’t want nuance, we don’t want details, we don’t want history (except insofar as it confirms our preconceptions) means that the very best of intentions of Westerners who want to help Africans has no problem winding its merry way down to hell: because the Bono’s and Madonna’s (and their much less glamorous but no less ignorant counterparts in the non-celebrity world) would rather see Africans as children needing a love-offering than victims of an ongoing global crime needing restitution, we do a very bad job of solving past crimes or preventing the ones going on right now. If you, as Westerner in the abstract, want to try to help Africans, spending some time getting your own house in order is time far better spent than wearing African poverty as a fashion accessory; asking the US to help Africa is like asking the fox to investigate egg disappearance in the henhouse. And by making the story of the slave trade into a story about hapless victims, you make a perfectly comprehensible story into something so evil it can’t be understood, a crime caused not by greed but a historically incomprehensible event of such magnitude that it defies explanation. And so we don’t need to explain it, we just blame evil people.

But here’s what happens when you actually try to understand, as she does not. When the first European slave traders showed up in west Africa, they found a surprisingly great market to buy slaves from. Occasionally they tried to pick up slaves by force, but before the industrial revolution, gunboats, and advanced weaponry, Africans with spears and bows were able to hold their own against Westerners with swords and single shot muskets, and slave traders were smart enough to realize that trade was more profitable than conquest. And the primary commodity they wanted was not all that hard to get (don’t forget that slavery did not begin with Africans; the word comes from “slav,” as in the Slavic people of Eastern Europe), so they fairly peacefully traded for it for many, many years. Why was it so easy to get slaves from Africa?

Much has been written on this, and I don’t want to oversimplify. But the rule of thumb to start with is that whereas Europe commodified land, Africa commodified labor. In Europe, you could own land, and if you wanted to become more wealthy than now, you would try to buy more land. There was a relative shortage of land, so you could always find someone to work on your land (in agrarian economics, remember, capital = labor + land). In Africa it was (in a very general, oversimplified sense) the inverse: land was plentiful, but labor was scarce. So instead of buying land, a would-be capitalist would instead buy labor. You could always find land for them to work on. The situation is tremendously more complicated than this, and scholars debate it, but if you want the most basic explanation of why Marx runs aground in talking about Africa, and why neo-classical economics is similarly unable to talk intelligently about African economic history, this distinction is why: in Europe land was in demand; in Africa, it was labor. To be rich in the west, you buy land. To be rich in Africa, you buy human labor. This is why Africa had such great labor markets when the slave traders arrived.

And this is why talking about slavery in Europe and slavery in Africa as if they are the same is so pernicious, and so wrong. For her, the fact that Africans use kinship terms to talk about slavery indicates that they were in denial about slavery, as if such terminology is the moral equivalent of when white southerners called male slaves “boy.” But its not the same; while African slavery was often extremely exploitative, it was also extremely varied. In many cases, slaves also owned slaves of their own, and they are referred to in kinship terms because it was generally possible to be considered a part of the family that bought you, in a very real way. This was not the case in the Americas, of course, but slavery meant something different in Africa. And when Africans were sold into the hands of western slave traders, the question of what the slave traders thought would happen to them is quite unclear, and deeply problematic. But this, our author does not care to know or acknowledge as problematic, and she dismisses Ghanaians who try to tell her this. She wants to tell a story about how her ancestors were exploited in the US, so she makes all Africa into a backdrop for that story. It’s not scholarship, and it doesn’t try to be, because she already knows the story’s ending and dismisses anything that contradicts her, ignores anything that match that ending. And because she’s not writing objective scholarship (because it is brave and courageous to write from a position of subjectivity) she can get away with it and be praised for it. In her solipsistic fascination with her own neurotic experience, her “brave” choice to put herself at the foreground of the story she’s telling, well, its hard to see that as anything more than another Westerner who travels to the “Orient” or to the “Heart of Darkness” in order to reflect on themselves. What Chinua Achebe wrote about Joseph Conrad is worth repeating:

“Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.”